PRINCESS ANNE — Engineering and construction to install broadband internet service to Choptank Electric customers is underway with some 45 locations the first in Somerset County that will be able to subscribe.
Choptank Electric Cooperative formed Choptank Fiber in September 2020 and cut the ribbon on its first project in Caroline County in April. Somerset County was the second demonstration project site, with 89 locations along Brownstone Road, Revell’s Neck Road Stewart Neck Road, Arbor Acre Drive and Widdowson Lane.
The $400,000 investment required a company match of 40% with Somerset County adding $10,000. Tim McGaha, vice president of technical services, said construction started in August and about half are less than two weeks out from being able to start signing up for service.
"They’ll be able to sign up and we’ll go through the process of hooking them up offering service in their home," he said. The other half are expected to be completed by mid-October.
"This has been pretty much done in-house," Mr. McGaha said, with workers still having "a lot to learn" about broadband installation.
The second installation in Somerset County was broken into two project areas in expectation that a $2 million grant would come in two allotments. This area combined covers nearly 700 locations and Choptank is providing the 40% match.
Project A serves 309 locations east of Princess Anne along Perryhawkin, Charles Boston, Mitchell, Dublin, Harry Riggins and Five Bridges roads. Residents in that area were invited to a meeting about the service in July.
Another meeting will be scheduled for residents along Project B which covers West Post Office Road south towards the Pocomoke River and west to George Riggins Road. It involves some 378 locations. Construction is expected to start this month, with some of the pole changes already underway.
It is estimated it will take 18 months to two years to get the entire project area connected. "As more funding comes available," Mr. McGaha, "we can cost justify bringing in contractors to move these quicker."
Once the fiber is run, and connected to the house, a "white glove" service crew will install and connect equipment inside the home, said Valerie Connelly, vice president of government affairs and public relations.
Pricing is based on megabits per second, with 100 Mbps at $84.95 per month the standard rate, rising to $99.95 per month for 250 Mbps and $139.95 per month for up to 1,000 Mbps. There are no data caps.
So far around 200 locations across Chesapeake’s market can be served with about 50 hooked up and receiving service through Choptank Fiber. Mr. McGaha estimated that two-thirds signed up for the "Performance" 250 Mbps package.
"That tells me we priced it right for the community, particularly compared to what they’re paying for satellite, fixed wireless or cellular hotspots," he said.
By year-end up to 1,000 homes are expected to have the internet service available, with Queen Anne’s County also involved with grant support similar to Caroline and Somerset counties. Partnerships with other Eastern Shore counties will follow later this fiscal year and next. The goal is to reach 2,000 locations or more annually after that.
"With additional grant funding and the ability to bring on additional crews we think we can expedite that," Ms. Connelly said. Gov. Larry Hogan and the General Assembly budgeted $299.5 million in fiscal year 2021 and FY22 for broadband infrastructure development — with $97 million set aside for rural broadband.
Ms. Connelly said if the state awards $3 million as requested, added to Choptank’s $1 million, plus another $1 million Somerset County is committing through the American Rescue Plan, it can be a $5 million project — about twice the size of the projects currently underway. "We think that will fill a lot of the need."
Revenue for internet service is rolled back into the next expansion. Choptank Electric is a non-profit, but Choptank Fiber is a for-profit that is wholly owned by the non-profit so if there is any revenue beyond what Choptank Fiber invests it comes back to Choptank Electric and its members, Ms. Connelly explained.
Choptank representatives provided their update to the County Commissioners Tuesday last week, and County Administrator Doug Taylor said his office is receiving fewer calls on when internet service will be coming because of the company’s efforts.
"A lot of the constituents know it’s on its way," said Commissioner Vice President Charles Laird, and it’s especially needed in rural sections of the county as demonstrated during the height of the coronavirus pandemic when virtual learning by students required online connectivity.
Mr. Laird was chairing the meeting as President Craig Mathies Sr. is a member of Choptank Electric’s board. For more on Choptank Fiber visit www.choptankfiber.com.